WT Enterprise Center celebrates its 20th year
“When we started, entrepreneur was not even a word most people understood,” says David Terry. “But now, in the ‘Shark Tank’ generation, people understand it. They know that’s where real wealth is being built.”
On the cusp of the organization’s 20th anniversary, Terry is talking about the founding of the WT Enterprise Center in 2001. Back then, it was named the Rural Agricultural Business Incubator and Accelerator, the product of a $1.5 million appropriation from the State of Texas and a partnership between Terry and his mentor, the late Don Taylor. Taylor had been the director of the Small Business Development Center and the author of the best-selling book Up Against the Walmarts. He also syndicated a weekly newspaper column about business. Terry was a young financial consultant who’d started collaborating with Taylor to give presentations and lead seminars for small business owners.
In the process, the duo kept encountering rural leaders—enterprising farmers and ranchers like Gary Sage—who turned out to be natural problem-solvers with creative product or service ideas. “They had things they were working on but didn’t quite understand the commercial value of [what they had developed],” Terry says. “First we were looking at manufacturers. I remember Don saying he had a vision for a place where they could come together and grow. There was a lot of entrepreneurial capacity here.”
That vision evolved into a community far bigger than rural applications and manufacturing. Over the next two decades, this business incubator gave rise to a variety of local businesses, from inventors to financial consultants to mechanical engineers. It helped launch global enterprises, technology companies and food products. But more than that, it became a central player in an entrepreneurial ecosystem that continues to transform the economy of Amarillo, Canyon and the larger Panhandle.
This summer, despite multiple changes in leaders, the WT Enterprise Center celebrates two decades of influence. Founder Don Taylor passed away in 2006 after a lengthy battle with cancer. Terry took his place, serving as executive director for the next 10 years (he’s now the CEO of the Paul F. and Virginia J. Engler Foundation). Jeff Reid succeeded Terry as executive director in 2017. The current leader of the Enterprise Center, Kyla Frye, has been with the organization since graduating from West Texas A&M University. She worked her way up from client services coordinator in 2012 and took the reins of the organization in 2019.
The organization’s leadership, programs and focus have changed over the decades, but the larger purpose of the Enterprise Center remains intact. “We provide resources to every single entrepreneur in the journey, from the startup stage to succession mode and handing it off to a family member. Wherever they are in that journey, we have something to help them,” Frye says.
RESOURCES AND OPPORTUNITIES
What does that “something” look like? It looks like an upstart business owner enrolling in the 18-month Growth Academy, opening the door to access to CEOs, mentors, business assessments and other resources designed to educate entrepreneurs on all the things they don’t already know.
It looks like technology startups from other parts of Texas relocating to Amarillo for three months as part of WTEC’s successful WIRE Accelerator cohort, a hands-on training program that helps early stage companies solve problems, embrace opportunities and even get access to financial capital.
It looks like the dozens of clients who have taken advantage of the Enterprise Center’s 40,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space, training and conference rooms, warehouse, and even a shared-use commercial kitchen—all while benefiting from ongoing coaching and support.
It looks like the busy collaborative atmosphere of Revolution at 800, a coworking space on Polk Street, where clients can rent private offices and dedicated desks, with access to all-important coffee and wifi in the heart of downtown Amarillo.
It looks like the now-legendary Amarillo EnterPrize Challenge, a community business plan competition that actually predates the Enterprise Center itself. This 25-year-old partnership with the Amarillo Economic Development Corporation and local banks allows budding entrepreneurs to submit business plans to a panel of judges. Winners receive a share of $500,000 in forgivable capital to inject into their businesses.
In fact, three of the center’s core programs—Growth Academy, WIRE Accelerator, and Revolution at 800—are new. They launched in 2019 and weren’t part of the organization at the beginning. That shows how, like any entrepreneurial experiment, the Enterprise Center itself has evolved, expanded and refocused over the years.
The Taylor Legacy
“We didn’t have all those resources when we started,” Terry says. What they had was Don Taylor’s energy and drive. This educator and business consultant had a passion for walking alongside entrepreneurs as they started a business, or as they attempted to grow an existing business. The early Enterprise Center attracted clients who knew there was a portion of their business model they couldn’t quite get their hands around—for instance, an inventor with a great product but no idea how to market it, or an excellent salesperson who got tangled up with the accounting or management side of a business. Taylor, Terry and their successors helped companies like Sage Oil Vac and Altura Engineering get their business ideas off the ground (see below). Today, existing clients like Skip’s Salsa and Kids Faith Krate are benefiting from Frye’s leadership and the WTEC ecosystem.
“From the very beginning, we knew we had the resources in Amarillo to help entrepreneurs. But there have been new programs, new ideas and new innovations still coming available. The script is still being written,” Terry says.
Despite the changes, he says Don Taylor’s character still flows throughout every part of the organization. “Don used to always say, ‘Use it up, wear it out, make do and do without,’” Terry remembers. “[The Enterprise Center] still operates with that mentality. We learned to use the strengths of the people that we had, from Don to me to Jeff to Kyla in all the transitions of leadership. Being a part of the community, having a heart for people and that open-door policy, listening to people—those are all the things Don Taylor strongly believed in.”
Aaron Sage is the CEO of Sage Oil Vac and the son of Gary Sage, the very first Enterprise Center client. He and his father met with Taylor on a regular basis in the early days, even officing next to each other at the WTEC. “Don didn’t mince words,” Aaron Sage says. “He would find a great way to challenge you if you were going about something the wrong way. He would say, ‘Gary, do you want to go from building junk in the barn to having a real manufacturing business?’ It was his way of saying you’ve got to step on to the next level in your business. You can’t think of it the way you did out on the farm.”
That was 20 years ago, but more recently, that perspective remains central to the day-to-day incubation and operation at the Center. Altura Engineering started in 2013 and maintained offices at the Enterprise Center until 2019. “Being in that ecosystem, there was always some event going on,” says David Salas, one of Altura’s three founders. “Advisors would show up for meetings or you would just run into them in the hallways. It didn’t matter what industry you’re in—whether you’re a service company or you’re producing a product—having access to an advisor makes all the difference.”
Times of Transition
Frye says one of the most impactful elements of that evolving ecosystem is a brand-new program called the Founders Club. Launched in 2019, this group is the Enterprise Center’s effort to provide services to companies who have already “graduated” from its program. These former clients must have more than $500,000 in annual sales revenue and at least five full-time employees. “It’s serving second-stage entrepreneurs,” she explains. It gives successful business owners a platform to engage with their peers. “They can talk about challenges, help each other and have that bond. Entrepreneurship is a hard road. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of high-level risks, so it’s important for them to make that connection.”
Importantly, these Founders Club members continue giving back to the Enterprise Center. They serve as mentors for other WTEC programs, participate in CEO roundtables and interact with new entrepreneurs.
“That’s one of the things that distinguishes Amarillo from other communities,” adds David Terry. “It’s not a community where everybody has to take credit. We all play really well in the sandbox together. The Enterprise Center has played a part in championing that entrepreneurial spirit and innovation.”
Observing the ways WTEC has expanded since those early days, Terry points back to that same innovative mindset. “We’ve adapted and overcome,” he says. “We haven’t been at the forefront of any great idea. We just packaged a lot of really good programs into something that worked for Amarillo. That’s entrepreneurial in and of itself.”
After navigating the closures and challenges of 2020, Frye says she and her team are continuing to put a lot of thought into what comes next. “What we want to focus on is getting really good at what we do,” she says. Having spent the last couple of years introducing new programs like WIRE Accelerator and Founders Club, the Center is now refining those existing resources. “We want to make them great, so our members get a lot of value. At the heart of it, we’re providing entrepreneurs with the resources they need, and the adaptability to lean in and figure out where to go from here.”
In looking back at the organization’s history, Terry keeps returning to the biblical story of Moses and Aaron. Moses died while the Israelites were wandering in the desert, so Aaron, his right-hand man, ended up being the one to lead Israel into the Promised Land. The organization started with Don Taylor, but Taylor got sick before it truly reached its stride. “Don was not able to see it through, but he invested in me,” says Terry. “I had to turn it over to someone like Kyla, and certainly she’s got a different skill set than me. But she’s in a good place, ‘for such a time as this,’ to take it to another level. I’ve seen enough transition and understand the need for organizations to change and grow.”
Like Amarillo itself, the Enterprise Center has come a long way since 2001. The business world keeps changing and the needs of its clients keep changing, too, so the organization has grown in tandem with the city. Amarillo won’t be the same in 20 years. Neither will the local business community. But if we’re lucky, the Enterprise Center will still be innovating as it provides resources, coaching and opportunities for these homegrown entrepreneurs.
The very first client of Don Taylor and David Terry’s organization, Sage Oil Vac had its origins on a farm outside Dalhart. Farmer Gary Sage was frustrated with the mess that resulted when he changed the oil in his irrigation engine, so in 1993 he came up with a lube exchange system that kept the process clean. Impressed, his contemporaries throughout the Midwest began asking him to create oil vacuum systems for use on their farms.
“He would farm during the farming season, and then the farm hands would get in the shop and build 10 to 15 units in between,” says his son, Aaron, now the company’s CEO. “It was his vision to grow from changing oil on tractors and irrigation engines in the Panhandle to changing oil on tanks, bulldozers and trucks.”
A faithful reader of Don Taylor’s syndicated column, he called the business consultant out of the blue and asked him for advice on his side venture. As the relationship grew, Gary moved to Amarillo in 2001 and decided to pursue the business full time. Aaron followed him, joining the new business a few months later. They officed next to Taylor and David Terry at the newly formed Enterprise Center. “Dad was the inventor and product developer, the key to the mechanical side of the product. I was the business manager, the one having the conversations about financial management, planning sales and marketing,” says Aaron.
Their proximity to Taylor and Terry proved critical during those early years. “It was a unique situation. We had such access to them, and we wore them out,” Aaron remembers. “We would talk about marketing strategy and sales strategy. We asked about every single aspect of our business in 2002, every detail.”
Sage Oil Vac operated out of the Enterprise Center until 2005. But Aaron Sage maintained a monthly coaching relationship with David Terry for another five years. Aaron says that mentorship filled in the knowledge gaps he and his father lacked. “If you are an entrepreneur, most of the time you’re going to have a bent toward one part of your business. My dad was very mechanical and into the technology and equipment, but he didn’t have as much interest in the long-term planning of the business. That wasn’t his thing. What the Enterprise Center did was provide a balance.”
Gary Sage retired in 2016 and Aaron took over as CEO. Today, this family-owned business operates out of its own facility on Lakeside Drive, producing custom lube trucks, trailers and carts, with dealers all over the United States and clients including the Army Reserve. In 2007, Sage Oil Vac expanded into wind energy by developing a gearbox oil exchange system that’s now used all over the world.
David Salas, Jacob Moreno and Chris Lopez first met while working at the Phillips 66 refinery in Borger. They eventually spread out among different employers, but realized that those Texas Panhandle companies were always hiring engineering design firms from bigger cities like Houston. There were plenty of talented technicians and engineers in the Panhandle. Why shouldn’t those nearby refineries and petrochemical industries hire a local project development and design firm instead?
The trio teamed up in 2013 and pitched their business in that year’s EnterPrize Challenge, winning a $100,000 grant for their business model. The three principals began hiring and spent the next several years operating out of the WTEC headquarters on North Western Street. By 2017, they had 22 employees and a rapidly expanding client base. By 2019, they outgrew that original office space and moved to a location in the FirstBank Southwest Tower. Today, Altura Engineering & Design has more than 40 employees and just opened a satellite office in El Paso.
“The Enterprise Center has been so important to us,” says David Salas on a hectic Thursday afternoon. “We were all working full-time jobs, but they gave us that opportunity and, by getting the grant, we had something worth trying. It motivated us to take that leap of faith.”
Altura made the annual Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies every year from 2017 to 2020, and has begun to diversify its client base beyond the oil and gas industries. “We’ve had periods where our growth has been a little faster than we wanted to, but the foundation we built at the WT Enterprise Center helped us navigate through that,” says Salas.
He, Moreno and Lopez stay involved with the Enterprise Center as mentors, while continuing to rely on coaching as Altura evolves. “When we get into situations where we’re thinking, ‘What do we do next?’ we know it’s time to bring in an advisor. The WT Enterprise Center is always a part of that.”
He points out that 45 percent of new businesses fail within the first five years, an outcome he and his co-founders were grateful to avoid. “That’s significant. But by being involved in an incubator, you’re giving yourself a better chance to make it,” he says. “The problems you have in any business are similar from one company to another. If you’re willing to be coached, incubation makes all the difference.”